To Be Young, Gifted and Black (and female)

Photo by Boipelo Khunou

By Kamogelo Matsoso

“To be young, gifted and black (and female)… oh, what a lovely precious dream”.

These are the lyrics found in the late and great Nina Simone’s song To Be Young, Gifted and Black. I just added “female”, because that is what I am and what I know myself to be. A young, gifted and black female who honestly had no idea just how precious life would be when answering a calling. A divine calling. 

Growing up all I had ever wanted to do was sing, perform and share my love for music. I was three years old when I would disrupt my mother and her studying classmates while they were preparing for their exams or doing assignments at my house and I would walk in the lounge with my cassette approaching the radio, demanding that they play Shosholoza (which was my favourite sing-along at the time), so that I may sing along to it. Little did I know that that very burning desire would be my fortress and guide- to lead me to where I am and where I know I truly ought to be as a performing artist and female Jazz musician.

I did not find Jazz. Jazz found me. And I am so honoured that it did. I remember being at home on Sundays throughout my childhood and listening to my dad’s records, CD’s or DVD’S while my mom had been making Sunday lunch and my dad had been reading the newspaper. These Jazz and soulful songs that I religiously listened to became embedded inside of me, so much so that when I sang, I had effortlessly imitated instruments and the sounds of singers such as Etta James, Nina Simone, Carmen Macrae, Mirriam Makeba and Letta Mbulu. 

Photo by Boipelo Khunou

I became obsessed with the image and sounds of black female artists and I had promised myself that I too would, one day, be one of them. Although I am still on my way, I am proud to say that the influence of these monumental black female artists had pushed me to move into my own lane. 

Firstly, being black, female or an artist in the world is not easy, but there is a very deeply rooted and unwavering beauty that you cannot shake off from this identity. 

South Africa has seen an evolution in black female artists and that evolution has become a wave that has taken so many of us that follow in the path of creativity. Through this wave, I have become aware of my being, my race, my place and I have established my own, unwavering voice.

Photo by Simphiwe Mahlangu

I have seen black female artists like uMam’ Mirriam Makeba, Busi Mhlongo and more influence women (whom are not all vocalists, but are musicians) that I look up to such as Thandiswa Mazwai, Thandi Ntuli, Nomfundo Xaluva, JustHlo and Siya Makuzeni and I have seen that very influence ripple out in my own work and approach to music.

I am not a “typical” Jazz musician that will scat the most intricate phrases or playthings that will blow your mind away. No, I am a black female with a voice and a choice to sing my truth in whatever way my soul leads me. Those that influence me have shown me that we do not have to look or sound alike. We just need to tell our truth through song and that is my motive.

Jazz in South Africa and the rest of the world is ever-evolving and I believe that there is a safe space for those who own their place. There is a seat for us all at the table and if you cannot find your allocated table and seat then build it, make it, and sit! 

I am proud to be an African musician who can speak and sing in my language and the language of others to tell intimate stories through song. It is a beautiful thing to do. My challenge however, lies in those that are listening. Those that are booking me and those that I play with to perform and those that provide the opportunities. 

I love my country, but in the South African industry, there is a consistent gate-keeping culture that often happens where only the well-known are given the opportunities. However, that has never stopped me and many of those I know. We are aware of this culture, but we move, we smile, we create and we share to those who are open to receiving our work.

I love what I do and I am honoured to have experienced the arts not just through creation, but through education too. My dream is to see myself do this on a wider scale, beyond the borders of South Africa and that is already happening. Through my passion, I will be collaborating with other artists of other disciplines and educating the world through the arts and arts education.

As I said, there is a seat for us all AND as I said… it is a beautiful thing “to be young gifted and black (and female), oh what a lovely precious dream” that only those who believe it get to see it come to fruition.

Photo by Thabo Monaheng